the school custodian carries the flag
on his shoulders
© Tzetzka Ilieva
Acorn #28, Spring 2012
The feeling behind this haiku is multi-faceted: earthy, humbling, epic, and melancholic. There is also a possible allusion to the painting “The Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh in the first line that adds another dimension to it. Maybe that dimension is a hint at the toils the school custodian has gone through, as Gogh painted “The Starry Night” while in personal torment.
The last line carries a lot of weight, no pun intended. “Shoulders” references at least two things at once: his actual shoulders, and his metaphorical shoulders. It is already a grand image to have the national flag bolstered on one’s shoulders, but to think of the symbolic implications is even grander. School custodians are typically thought of as low-level people in a society, but with him carrying the flag, an instantly poetic and contemplative scene arises in the reader’s mind. It could happen that all of us, even school custodians, carry one’s country forward. It may be that each citizen of a country is valuable, despite our feelings of being minuscule compared to the reaching influence of politicians, figureheads, and celebrities.
The first line, besides making a possible allusion to van Gogh’s painting, is making a physical reference to the stars on the flag. I presume this flag is the American flag, though other flags have stars on them. The stars on the flag are also complimented by the night sky filled with stars. This sense of fullness, stars top and bottom, displays a classical haiku aesthetic of completeness and oneness. The ellipsis (…) reiterates this sense.
The use of “the” in this haiku shows the gravity and respect this subject deserves. If it was “a school custodian” or “a flag” it would not have as much weight to it. Usually in haiku, we try to be selective about the articles we use to show a mood and which place readers should place their attention primarily. But in this haiku, both the school custodian and the flag are given equal respect, which goes along well with the context of the haiku.
On a sonic level, the “s” sound works well in “starry,” “school,” “carries,” “his,” and “shoulders.” For me, this sound makes the haiku even more reverential in mood.
About the action itself: we don’t know exactly why the school custodian is carrying the flag, and possibly outside. Many reasons could arise: he had to take it down to put it in a box during summer season, he had to bring a flag to an event in the school, he had to replace a flag in a classroom, the school is closing down and he is moving the flag outside into a packaging location, and many more possibilities. But what I do know is that seeing this haiku in my mind’s eye, with the school custodian walking down a hall, the flag on his shoulders, I can’t help but feel something indescribable.
– Nicholas Klacsanzky